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Is it real coffee, or some Scandinavian Christmas potion?

The Ref
aka Hostile Hostages
(1994)

(SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s a mistake to offer up a Christmas-set movie that doesn’t evoke a Christmas glow, or even a glimmer, regardless of whether – as in this case – it reaches a place of reconciliation and forgiveness. Anything you care to look at spanning any degree of tones and genres – from Die Hard, to Bad Santa, to The War of the Roses to Gremlins – understands this, to a greater or lesser extent. The Ref, set as it is on Christmas Eve, rather manages to miss the Yule boat.

George: You wanna see Santa falling down everyone’s chimney?

Some might say that’s the point. But that means the setting becomes a turn off and the change in mood at its conclusion pointless. There’s a good idea here – from Richard LaGravenese, who scored with The Fisher King a couple of years earlier, and sister-in-law Marie Weiss – but Ted Demme and his No Cure for Cancer stand-up star Denis Leary fail to capitalise on it. I thought No Cure was hilarious at the time, boasting Leary and his unrepentant bad-boy act (obviously, he has since sold out to the max, although not as much as his fellow stand-up smoker Bill Hicks – he became Alex Jones, of course).

Connie: You call your patients wackos?
Gus: Yeah, they er, like it.

Like many a stand-up, Leary is rather straightjacketed by straight narrative comedy. It didn’t work for him in Demolition Man either. Sure, he’d get the hang of the performance well enough, but his bits here are mostly the least-interesting part of The Ref, particularly as it tries to make him the titular straight man, presiding over the feuding marital breakdown of Caroline (Judy Davis) and Lloyd (Kevin Spacey). You’re waiting for him to unleash on those deserving of opprobrium, but instead the structure hones in on a worm (Lloyd) turning on his mother (Glynis Johns, in toweringly obnoxious form).

Caroline: How can we both be in the marriage and I’m miserable and you’re content?
Lloyd: Luck?

Leary’s agreeable, but he needs to be more than that. Spacey and Davis, in contrast, are fire and brimstone, perfectly cast as a ferociously dyspeptic, dysfunctional couple. Davis is all wired brittleness. Spacey, never convincing when he’s going for softness, and that isn’t hindsight talking, can’t really persuade when they reach the makeup stage, but this kind of role, for the most part, is a tour-de-force of sour jibes, and he has a face made for disdain.

Lloyd: You know what I’m going to get you next Christmas? A big wooden cross.

I recall thinking the picture didn’t quite hit the mark when I first saw it, especially chafing as I also remember the preceding positive reviews. Of the “Why was this not a hit?” variety (and a Simpson and Bruckheimer movie at that; their first box office misfire in a decade). Revisiting it again, it has evident problems with its structure. Gus (Leary) kidnaps Caroline and Lloyd, fine. But then what? The annoyingly entrepreneurial son returns (Robert J Steinmiller), the in-laws pay a house call, and so everyone has to play dress up.

Gus: From now on, the only person who yells is me.

It’s less escalation than sidestepping. The hostage situation of Hostile Hostages – yes, its UK title – never arrives, and yet it seemed to be brewing with the subplot concerning Raymond J Barry’s police lieutenant (it’s a fairly middling one, culminating in a “I nailed your wife” jibe involving a wiped videotape).

So we settle on something out of a lesser Chevy Chase movie, as Carol presents a traditional Scandinavian dinner complete with ornate candle headgear. Plus, the conceit of Gus posing as their counsellor (BD Wong in the early scenes) is utilised for its maximum farce value.

George: You think you can take me? I’m Santa Claus!

On the casting front, Christine Baranski appears as Caroline’s sister in law, and JK Simmons makes his movie debut as the military school officer Jesse is blackmailing. Neighbour George (Bill Raymond) is a drunk Santa, but the kind of dunk Santa that gives Billy Bob Thornton’s a good name.

Gus: Your husband isn’t dead, lady. He’s hiding.

It seems test audiences didn’t much like an ending where Gus gives himself up in order to show Jesse a life of crime is nothing to aspire to, and execs instead had him escape with accomplice Murray (Richard Bright). Given that ending was shot January 1994, it might explain why The Ref didn’t garner a Christmas 1993 release. What it doesn’t explain is why Disney then dumped it in March. Who goes to see a Christmas movie in March? Apart from Ebenezer Scrooge, gloating?

Why not just hold it back nine months? Time was, the UK would get its US Christmas movies a whole year later, such were the vagaries of release schedules – and invariably straight to video at that. Of course, US tastes in Christmas have always been somewhat mysterious.

John: Maybe they’ll catch him and let him go, in the Spirit of Christmas.
Connie: That is not the spirit of Christmas. The spirit of Christmas is either you’re good or you’re busted and then you burn in hell.

Take Home Alone. Even giving families the benefit of the doubt and a lingering Yule sensation until MLK Weekend, it subsequently made another $80m by the time it dropped out of release in June! Gremlins was released in June. Die Hard in July. There’s no rhyme or reason. But even given such nuttiness, you just don’t release a movie set at Christmas ten weeks after. That’s plain crazy.


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